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Peter Hitchens on the Marxist project to destroy the grammar schools

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A Revolution Betrayed: How Egalitarians Wrecked the British Education System by Peter Hitchens; Bloomsbury, November 24, 2022

ACCORDING to his widow, Anthony Crosland, the Labour education secretary from 1965 to 1967, once told friends: ‘If it’s the last thing I do, l’m going to destroy every last f***ing grammar school in England and Wales and Northern Ireland’.If true, he pretty much succeeded. Of the 1,298 grammars that existed at the time of that profanity, just a few hundred pale simulacra of these once formidable institutions now remain. This was, argues Peter Hitchens in A Revolution Betrayed, a grievous self-inflicted wound whose pain is still keenly felt.

Grammar schools were awoken into being by the 1944 Education Act, and for a golden 20-year period offered rigorous, high-quality education to any boy or girl capable of passing the 11-plus exam. They enabled a generation of bright children from poor backgrounds to maximise their potential and gain access through an almost magical portal to the higher echelons of society and the professions. British society benefited greatly from an enlarged talent pool and the grammars had the supplementary benefit of forcing the private schools (of which Hitchens is no fan) to raise their game to compete.

In the mid-60s, in an act which Hitchens likens to the dissolution of the monasteries, the process of destroying this treasure was begun and the ‘revolution’ – by which Hitchens means the short-lived flirtation with transforming Britain into a less class-ridden, meritocracy, was abandoned. Or ‘betrayed’.

This was not easily achieved – grammars were so popular that Harold Wilson was reputed to have promised ‘over his dead body’ to preserve them. But circumstances intervened to allow the opportunity for their destruction in the form of the post-war baby boom. There had never been enough grammars to meet demand, but by the mid-50s the competition for places was unsustainable. Frustrated parents of children who had failed the 11-plus were susceptible to an alternative, especially when the new product was attractively packaged and persuasively presented. Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell promised that comprehensives would bring the benefit of grammars ‘for all’ (an ‘absurd claim’, says Hitchens). This, combined with a fashionable disdain for anything that smacked of old, establishment Britain, which the grammars with their begowned masters, their Greek and Latin and the ‘swish of the cane whistling in the background’ certainly did, gave the egalitarians their chance.

Hitchens stresses that this was not, as is commonly supposed, a tale of right vs left, with the left triumphant, but an internal struggle of the Labour party (‘a kind of left versus a different kind of left’). It’s a world he understands as well as anyone from his own background as a revolutionary Marxist. The egalitarian left were usually high-born and privately educated, led by the likes of Anthony Crosland, and the less exalted working-class left, exemplified by Parliamentary Labour Party chairman Manny Shinwell, who were in touch with local realties, may have attended grammar schools themselves, and saw their worth to their underprivileged constituents.

The Conservative party were not inclined to save the grammars, or even especially interested in the debate. So many of them were privately educated that they lacked the understanding to appreciate the value of grammar schools, and often viewed the matter simply in terms of electoral popularity. And since new comprehensives were relatively cheap to construct, many Conservative councils blithely waved them through.

Some of the flaws in the comprehensive model were understood at the time, and glossed over in the sunlit uplands promotion, but the extent of the potential damage seems not to have been realised, or if it was, it wasn’t considered a priority. Graham Savage, the civil servant who coined the term ‘comprehensive’, was inspired by American high schools whose aim was to produce good citizens rather than an educated elite. He admitted that academic standards would likely fall, but commented near the end of his life that they had fallen rather more than he had anticipated.

Hitchens argues that as well as condemning numberless gifted young people from poor families to languish in mediocrity in sink schools, the project hasn’t even achieved its aim of a fairer society. Quite the reverse: selection by ability has been replaced by selection by wealth, the better comprehensives being able to draw from the most expensive catchment areas. Moreover, in the desperate attempt to shore up belief in the comprehensive project, the process of making exams easier was initiated, a process which continues to this day to the point where large numbers of university entrants need remedial classes in basic literacy and numeracy.

One of the revelations of this book is the extent to which the proponents of the comprehensive system were motivated by red in tooth and claw Marxism. Brian Simon, for example, the intellectual force behind the movement, was a member of the British Communist Party. Hitchens speculates that the deeper motivations for the comprehensive school project were closer to Marxism/Leninism than could ever be admitted. Did the almost deranged hatred of grammars, exemplified by Crosland, have as its wellspring the fear that foot soldiers in a future proletarian army were being lost to the unbiddable ranks of the middle-class? Was the comprehensive school movement a campaign for social immobility and a first, necessary phase in Britain’s ongoing cultural revolution? ‘The process was profoundly political from the beginning,’ says Hitchens. ‘There was never any educational argument for the change.’

It is shocking how inconvenient facts were fudged and dissenting voices silenced to keep the ideological show on the road. Hitchens makes a spirited defence of the secondary moderns, the orthodox view of which has long been that they were the wastebin into which those who had failed the 11-plus were thrown. In fact, he states, there is evidence that the secondary moderns served their pupils reasonably well. He cites the Marks and Cox report of 1984, which revealed that the secondary modern schools, along with the grammars, were faring far better than the comprehensives. The wholly innocent authors of the report were ‘savaged’ and ‘defamed’ by the educational establishment until rescued and vindicated by Tory education minister Keith Joseph. 

Heads may swim at the detail in this book and the seemingly endless categories and sub-categories of schools and examinations, the maze of educational pathways and the bewildering succession of government reports. In his clear desire to be, in the best sense of the word, comprehensive, Hitchens has assembled an arsenal of information and unleashes a relentless fusillade of facts and figures that can be overwhelming at times. There is some repetition – Shirley Williams’s hypocrisy in sending her daughter to a grammar school despite a political life of implacable anti-grammar activism gets several mentions.

Quibbles aside, in this study of large-scale human folly, the indifference of utopians to the consequences of turning their ideals into policy and their dishonesty in failing to acknowledge their failures, Hitchens has sounded a clear and resonant warning about dogma-led decision-making. Grammars aren’t coming back (‘the cause is lost’) but there are crucial lessons here for all involved in shaping Britain’s future. A copy ought to be available in every government department.

Perhaps the words of the American economist and political commentator Thomas Sowell should be etched on the walls: ‘The more I study the history of intellectuals, the more they seem like a wrecking crew, dismantling civilization bit by bit – replacing what works with what sounds good.’

I’m sure Peter Hitchens would agree.

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